Thursday, April 05, 2007

Harris´ spring break or how I learned to stop worrying and love the climb

As Matt and Ben went to see their respective Schwartzes and Thea went to see her sister, I, an only child without a significant other, took to the open road carrying only the spring break necessities: a small European swimsuit, a drum of Hawaiian tropic lotion and the sat phone. Heading out of Uyuni an ominous thunderstorm loomed in my path. I found out quickly that ominous and looming would be two words that would define much of my next two weeks. 5 km out of town a Bolivian man in a truck pulled over in front of me and told me to throw my bike in the back so that he could drive me through the storm, I demurred and luckily missed the storm, only to ride in its muddy wake, however. Although I was dry, my bike was not, every component and every cog was lathered in foot deep mud (and would be for the remainder of the 200 km to Potosi). My chain could barely get a grip on the rear cassette and I walked up many of the hills. Much of the road was washed out and at dusk of my first day I came to a seemingly impassable river 30 yards wide. I was sitting on the bank, contemplating the moronic idea of trying to ford it as night approached when a huge, four eyed monster rumbled towards me. The huge backhoe slammed its shovel down on the ground in front of the bike and the driver, Frances, motioned for me to get in. Like Washington crossing the Delaware I rode across the river triumphantly and was dropped off a kilometer down the road at the construction worker´s camp.

The next morning the workers crowded around to ask questions about my strange looking stove and my even stranger looking tent. They told me it was all flat from there on out and wished me a safe journey. As I was to be reminded of time and time again, the Bolivian term for flat really meant that large mountains would soon greet me. The second day was the usual mix of cold thunderstorms, hail, and mountains, which explain why one doesn´t see many bicycle tourers in Bolivia. The third day was slated to contain my joyous arrival into Potosi after 80km of biking. By 11 o´clock the sky had turned black and the clouds opened up. The rain turned to sleet and showed no sign of stopping and by 5 I had to pull over every kilometer to stick my hands into my jacket (and into my mouth) to keep them strong and warm enough to be able to operate the shifters. By 6 I was 10 km outside of Potosi, it was starting to get dark and I was sure that things couldn´t get any worse.

Of course, they did when a bracket holding my front rack to the bike snapped clean in half. I took a deep breath, got off my bike, and started walking the bastard. Less then a kilometer down the road a Portuguese motorcyclist on a bright orange honda, his girl on the back, "ruta che guevara" emblazoned on the side, pulled over and asked if everything was alright. Frankly, I said, things had been better, and I asked jokingly if I could grab a ride. "No problem!" he said and told me that their friends were in a truck only ten minutes back. Sure enough, three other motorcyclists soon followed, and a boxy red truck pulled up the rear. It was an old British ambulance that had been through every populated continent but Africa, I was soon to learn. "THE BEAST" was painted on its rear doors. After some shifting of things and cajoling, my bike was shoved into the back of the beast, but there was no room for me. "I could jump on a bike," I offered. And soon I was riding into Potosi in style sitting behind an amiable German named Chris, wearing a big motorcycle helmet and blue bicycle shorts. Potosi looked like a war zone at night, dimly lit, jagged streets were covered in rubble and lined with tiny store fronts protected from the street with thick iron gates. Potosi was once the richest city in the world as the spanish plundered the nearby mountain to extract enough silver (as the story goes) to build a silver bridge to Spain, but it has aged poorly and now it is an over sized mining town with an overabundance of Cathedrals.

They dropped me off across the street from their hotel; I thanked them profusely and insisted on buying them a round. They were not the type of group to demur. After I regained the feeling in my extremities during a wonderful, scalding hot shower, I bought a couple bottles of wine and went over to their lobby. I met the gang, Nuno and Tati (the husband and wife who had first stopped), Chris, the German, and a rag-tag bunch of Kiwis and Brits, Pete, Jason, Alexa, Greg, Jacky, and Trent, who were all either married, family, or had known each other since way back when. A couple of bottles were joined with a couple more and at some point a 2 gallon jug of something that tasted like Sherry appeared on the scene. This was the start of a beautiful friendship and a number of very painful mornings.

It turned out that there was a welder right across the street and a cobbler a block up (my sole had come free, a common experience when travelling) and by 10 o´clock the next morning the world was right again. I went to the mines in Potosi, a truly harrowing experience, as the mines have some of the worst working conditions in the world and most miners are dead within 15 years of entering the mines from black lung disease. Many start work before the age of 10. The dust is thicker than the air and Í had to crawl on my stomach to move from passage to passage. I know it was a once in a lifetime experience, because I will never do it again. I also went to a soccer match, Potosi Real vs. Venezuela. It was a spirited match until the second half when it became clear that the altitude of 14,000 feet had taken its toll on the endurance of the players. Large fire works were set off in the stands, I eat half of a chicken and drank a bag of coke, it was pretty much like being at home.

The next morning I took off for the long, paved, downhill route to Sucre. Waking up late and stopping early I clocked 110km on this idyllic section of road and slept within the compound of a local school teacher named Mario. "Professor Mario" was something of a local authority figure and all morning respectful locals came through the gates to ask him questions. He gave me dinner and breakfast and I gave him a sweater I had bought in Santiago for 2 bucks. The next morning the sun was shining and after a hill of 40km I arrived in Sucre, a clean, white washed city, which felt downright tropical at an elevation of just around 10,000 feet. There was chocolate, a schwarma restaurant, wood fire pizza, and "Joyride," a very respectable Gringo bar. This was like manna from heaven. I brought my bike into a beautiful hostel with a sunlit courtyard and they told me, sorry, no singles, but we´ll give you a double with cable for the same price (8 bucks a night). I had arrived.

Sucre is the legal capital of Bolivia and lawyers are to it as miners are to Potosi. Its not exactly a rough and tumble kind of place. The motorcyclists were half a day ahead of me and as it turned out Pete was staying one door down. He had gotten the last single (Cyclist 1 - Motorcyclist 0). We met up with Nuno, Tati, and Chris and decided to take a stroll down to the Joyride for dinner and a few after dinner drinks. The place was packed. Chris insisted to getting a round of this phenomenal German heffevizen, Tati insisted on a round of Caparinas, a strong Brazilian speciality, Pete threw down for the local pint, and by the time it was my turn I said, hey, why not a round of tequila. The rest of the night was a bit of a blur. Tati taught me how to samba, I tried to teach her how to swing. At some point Nuno and I engaged in a wrestling match in the middle of the dance floor, some glasses were broken, some toes were stepped on, but a good time was had by all.

After another two days of good food and good drinks I tore myself away from Sucre, leaving my biker friends to enjoy the bacchanal for a while longer, for the 350 km ride to Cochabomba, the city of eternal spring time, renowned for having the best weather in the world. The first day was glorious pavement, I slept in a windowless room next to a restaurant on a not so uncomfortable straw mattress. Despite only being 90 km out of Sucre, the people in this town, er, bus stop, spoke only the local indigenous dialects to each other and the children I talked to had never made the journey to the big city. The small pueblos in this region are medium-poor, but what really struck me was how bored everyone was. No internet, TV, few books. No basketball court even (a common sight in the slightly larger Bolivian pueblos), at night the 25 children ages 5 to 16 crowded around me to watch me read my book. These people have clothes on their backs and enough food, and are better off then many in the world, but their lives seemed blank. They said that travellers from all over the world stopped through their town, but none of them had ever left it. I wondered, what do they think about and hope for? Do they have a concept of a world more than 100km in either direction? Unfortunately, my spanish was not up to the task of finding out. I left early and the second day was medium glorious smooth gravel, rather flat by Bolivian standards and I slept in an abandoned church (the priest took out a box marked "TV" before he allowed me to stay, as if I might steal it on my bicycle).

The third day was a mess. I had slept about 20 km past the small town of Aquille, which had been paved with rough hewn cobble stones. This was charming, almost Parisian really, I thought as I biked out of town. When I pulled over to the church the cobble stones were still going strong, but their charm was wearing out fast. 15, 20, 30 km past the church the cobble stones were still going. Biking along them was like sitting on a paint mixer. And then the hill started. I had descended into a valley that morning, so I knew that a big hill would be on the other side of the river, but I was totally unprepared for this monster. It ascended along switchbacks for 30 km, and then when I was sure it would taper off, "its flat up there" the locals assured me it kept rising relentlessly for another 20 km of romantic cobble stones. Sometime in the early afternoon I asked a man standing on the edge of the never ending hill side, "When does this climb end?" "Esta plano aqui," he said, "It´s flat here." I looked around, I was higher, hundreds of meters higher, than any of the surrounding mountains and yet the road kept going up into the sky. Small school children followed me silently as I climbed at a slug´s pace. At times twenty or thirty of them would walk behind my bike, the leading ones sidling along my rear tire. I imagined them mocking me behind me back as I heard their giggles. My own Greek chorus laughing at my arrogant attempt to climb this mountain. I was tired and frustrated. I wanted to shew them off, yell at them to go away, but they were just curious and bored and meant no harm. I peddled on with my procession in tow.

At 5 o´clock the cobble stones and the climb stopped. All that stood between me and hundreds of kilometers of smooth pavement was a tiny section of downhill gravel. As I glided down this fine road the harsh sun of midday gave way to a cool dusk, the mountains were reduced into rolling hills and I entered a fragrant eucalyptus grove. For a moment I left the grueling Bolivian landscape and found myself in the gentle foothills of Northern California, imagining riding my old Yamaha on a friday afternoon. I was overcome by the smell of the trees and I started to cry, I didn´t want to cross any more mountain ranges, I wanted to go home. (Mountains 1 - cyclist 0). A man riding his bicycle, stopped, handed me a peach and patted me on the back. The Bolivians aren´t the friendliest of people, but when you need them, they always seem to come through.

I got to the pavement ten minutes later and kissed it. Smooth sailing from here on out, I thought. I rode a few kilometres down and stopped in at a farm house when it started raining to ask if I could buy dinner. "Of course," the drunken proprietor said, "what would you like?" I listed off some typing Bolivian staples, "I like soups, chicken, meat, anything." "Eggs, we have, eggs," he said. "Eggs, great," I replied. I sat down in the adobe kitchen, the straw roof blackened from years of cooking and ate a tasty dinner of eggs, french fries, potatoes, hot peppers and a fortified yeasty beverage, which I will never have again, god willing. He said that I could sleep on a cot (straw mattress) on the floor since the rain had picked up and we agreed on the price of ten bolivianos ($1.25) for the whole package. One of his drunken compatriots came in and announced "I am Bolivian." The Bolivians are very proud of their heritage and especially vocal about thier pride when hammered. "You are American, you have lots of money, give me some money," he slurred. I told him that I would prefer not to and the proprietor pushed him out. The next morning the proprietor would say the same thing, only slightly more diplomatically, when he insisted that we had agreed on ten dollars the night before. His wife shot him the universal look that wives across all cultures give their husbands when their husbands are being asses, we settled on 20 Bolivians and I rode the 120 km to Cochabamba by 4 o´clock thanks to some truly epic downhill.

It was time again to relax . I ate at Cantonata, the most expensive restaurant in town, (Cesar salad, steak covered in shrimp and a decadent cream sauce, half bottle of excellent wine- $12), had a massage ($4 including tip), and lounged in the local French cafe, eating crepes with salad and drinking espresso ($3). For all the flack Bolivia gets about its food, I wasn´t complaining. I also saw a local concert at the cultural center: A man with a golden voice on guitar accompanied by an equally talented pianist. Some of their songs were truly moving and it was refreshing to see a side of Bolivian culture other than impoverished rural life.

I fled the good life after 36 hours and figured that the 380 km to La Paz would be three and a half days of cake. I wanted to make the Seder in La Paz on April 2nd and figured that I would arrive with time to spare. I had been told that from the junction to Oruro, half way there, it was totally flat- I extrapolated that it would therefore be flat the whole way. I was wrong. 30 km outside of Cochabamba it began, ominous, looming. The first hill would go on without respite for close to 50 km, up and up and up. By 80 km out of majestic Cochabamba I was no longer living the good life. I had suddenly been transported (or not so suddenly, I should say) from an idyllic, oxygen rich 2600m, to a cold and unpleasant 4200m. Over the next day and a half the mountains would slope down only occasionally, just enough to refresh themselves for the next big climb. I would drop below for 4000m only to find myself climbing to 4500 before I could say "You mother f$%&/ing mountains, I want to..." The lack of an end in sight was driving me a bit crazy. By the end of day two I was looking for buses, I was cursing. If a smiley backpacker had asked after a deep breath of pure, country air "Don´t you just love the mountains?" I would have stomped on his recycled mug- not that I´d seen another gringo since Cochabamba anyway. As I woke up on the third day in an abandoned Unicef compound the last thing I wanted to do was get on a bike. And then, no mountains. Downhill, flat, farmland, heaven. By 2 I had gone 90 km (close to my combined total for the previous two days), when Nuno, Tati and Chris pulled up. "Those are some big mountains, respect." Chris said. "I figured you´d be in La Paz by now," Nuno chuckled. "Grab on," Tati said. I grabbed her wrist and they pulled me to the next town (which was safe because I am an expert touring biker), where we had lunch. I slept in the following town in a hostel with showers and TV, luxury, even if the TV only got one channel in spanish with a lot of static, rode 60 km in the morning and once I could see smogy La Paz looming in the distance (ominously), I jumped on a bus to avoid the city biking.

Naturally, they dropped me off on the opposite side of town from where I needed to be and I barreled through the city, trying to get to the hotel with bike and person in tact. There is a road north of La Paz, which was termed the "world´s most dangerous road" by some UN statistician. It has become a huge tourist destination and people pay $40-80 to rent a suped-up bike and be followed by a chase truck, lest anything should happen. But real thrill seekers, I have some advice for you. For that money you could easily buy a steel frame bicycle here and for free you could ride it through La Paz. I assure you, money back guarantee, this will be more dangerous then some rough and rocky road. La Paz is an orgy of buses, pedestrians, taxis and street vendors. Each intersection is like a magic meat grinder where things go in whole, mix with steel and rubber and honking horns and come out the other side whole again. And if you make it through you could give your bicycle to a Bolivian at the end of the day and feel good about yourself, too.

I made it to the Seder, expecting a small affair, but found 800 rowdy Israelis there instead. Apparently they all converge in La Paz and Cusco for a festival of deffining loudness. It was all in Hebrew and dragged on for ten hours. I felt out of place, strangely enough, but was glad to be there for the experience. The next day I finally met up Ben, Thea, and Matt for Pizza. The most gringos I had seen in a good long while and, boy, was I happy to see them.


Blogger zeev2 said...

Boychik, when you return to flat-side forget the infectious disease bs.
Your future is clearly on some competative Survivor Show circuit. Some heavy hitting high rollers will capitalize your pedaling Jewish ass. Market you as the cycling Heb and challange all those pussy ass whimps. Yeh,pick a mountain, any mountain.
Ang Lee and Steve S will be vying for the movie rights to "Seder at 15,0000 Feet".

6:15 PM  
Blogger Haley said...

Harris, I love you. Strange, but true

7:29 PM  
Anonymous Meg said...

Oh my G-d, who is this Harris? His mother must be having a fit, her only child, pedalling alone in high altitude wilderness. And then to finally hit La Paz to have a 10-hour seder with 800 crazy Israelis. He must be some guy!

4:50 AM  
Anonymous Bull's Mom said...

Bravo! That is quite a spring break. Terrific accounting of it all. Congrats on your future plans.

7:09 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Eggs. They have eggs.

9:43 AM  

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